JOHN DUNCAN SOMEWHERE TELLS of an election campaign meeting in the Scottish border country at which an unbriefed but resourceful speaker hit on a winning formula. “Will you have your daughters sold into simony?” he demanded of his startled rustic audience. “Will you have a chasuble set up in your market place?” In no time at all he had them crying, “No! No!”
Similar tactics are not unknown on the contemporary ecumenical scene in Scotland. Smoke screens originating in secondary or irrelevant issues have bedeviled Anglican-Presbyterian conversations in the past and continue to do so, making it incredibly difficult to follow and make sense of what is happening. Contributing to this situation is a Scottish newspaper of large circulation and dogmatic views, dedicated to the exposure of plottings designed at enslaving Scots again in the yoke of episcopacy loathed long since and lost awhile.
The paper does this partly by giving the impression that the purpose and sole topic of inter-church conversations is negotiation of the terms on which the Kirk would accept bishops. Whenever there is a further development in Presbyterian-Anglican relations, the publication in question (founded by Lord Beaverbrook, himself a son of the manse) sounds that come-to-the-battle note that stirs Auld Scotia’s pride. Even that section of the populace loosely identifiable as “Presbyterian atheists” rushes suitably outraged to the conflict at the sound of this uncertain trumpet. Viet Nam and Rhodesia are edged off the front page as religion becomes again big news in a land that can never quite forget John Knox. Mention bishops in Presbyterian Scotland (even “bishops-in-presbytery,” as recommended by the 1957 report) and you will get virtually the same response that was elicited nearly four centuries ago: “Busk [dress] him, busk him as bonnilie as ye can … we see the horns of his mitre.”
That this relentless opposition has shaken even English imperturbability was seen in the Convocation of Canterbury last month. Dr. Oliver Tomkins, Bishop of Bristol, usually the most irenic of men, was rash enough to make a public attack on his newspaper adversary. In exasperation he referred to the “tyrannous pretensions of this strident spokesman of the Fourth Estate” that vitiated all discussion by “shrill vituperation and gross distortion” and by playing on the “least pleasing aspects of Scottish sentiment.”
The conversing committees in one way have only themselves to blame. If Anglicans and Presbyterians had given more thought to public relations at their January meeting in Edinburgh, there would have been no scope for sensational press disclosures of “secret plots.” The fact that a confidential document was leaked to the offending paper (which naturally made the most of the shining hour), and that unwarranted assumptions were drawn from it, gave ammunition to the anti-bishop faction and did far more harm than would have been caused had the ecumenical officials been more forthright.
The Bishop of Bristol’s was not the only convocation commentary on the Scottish ecclesiastical scene. With excellent motive and dubious wisdom, Canon Hugh Montefiore of Cambridge broached the explosive subject of the Rev. John Tirrell, the American Episcopalian who jumped the ecumenical gun by becoming assistant at Presbyterian St. Giles’ (see “Edinburgh: A Jurisdictional Dispute,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, December 3, 1965, p. 46). Montefiore, with mysterious references here and there to his “Edinburgh friends,” took the convocation step by step through the complexities of this whole sorry business, which has enhanced the reputation of none of the parties involved and has profited nothing but opportunistic journalism. Thereafter, in proceeding to recommend any action at all on a domestic Scottish issue, the Convocation of Canterbury was a two-time loser. Though wisely rejecting a proposal to send a message to the Church of Scotland General Assembly, it encouraged the Archbishop of Canterbury to write personally to the moderator (quite the wrong way to deal with Presbyterianism), expressing the hope that the Tirrell affair would not influence the assembly’s deliberations later that month. This letter, relayed with the purest of intentions, was doomed to condemnation in some Scottish circles as an impertinent intrusion. The Tirrell case is no cause célèbre but a squalid dispute in which pride and clashing personalities are more conspicuous than elements of high principle.
I have been concerned to spell out these various details and problems in Scotland partly to show how easy it is in matters ecumenical for spiritual concerns to be squeezed out when controversy looms large. Cautious ecumenicals are accused of shiftiness and evasion (overmuch definition of terms is unhappily deemed ecumenically dangerous), Scottish national pride has been made a more vital factor than Christian humility, and the ghost of Jenny Geddes is conjured up, with stool ready poised to hurl at Episcopal heads. So loaded is the atmosphere in Scotland at present that it confirms the view of moderate Presbyterians that conversations have been pushed on too quickly after the Bishops’ Report of 1957, and that it would be better if the whole matter were put into cold storage for a generation.
It must be added, however, that there is little in this latest report on Anglican-Presbyterian conversations that will offend. It recommends the development of bilateral conversations within the two countries—that is, between the Presbyterian establishment and the Episcopal minority in Scotland, and between the Episcopal majority and the Presbyterian group in England. The report goes on to deal briefly with such questions as the meaning of unity as distinct from uniformity in church order; the meaning of “validity” as applied to ministerial orders; the doctrine of Holy Communion: the meaning of the Apostolic Succession as related to the foregoing matters; the Church as Royal Priesthood; and the place of the laity in the Church. The report calls each church “to sacrifice in order that a Church united and enriched in God’s truth may emerge.”
Whether in all this the Scottish Daily Express will see something akin to establishing chasubles in public, I don’t know. It seems to me the real crisis will come when Anglicans and Presbyterians are caught practising intercommunion in secret.
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